Zimbabwe’s Mugabe is a harbinger for the West

By Rob Katz

APRIL 8, MUTARE, ZIMBABWE -What would you think if you were from New York City and traveling on a dusty road in South Africa and saw someone proudly wearing an Osama bin Laden T-shirt?

Here, in what was once the breadbasket of Africa, the name of Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe resonates, like bin Laden’s, as a symbol of resistance to amorphous white, colonialist, Western forces. In an arena long dominated by the sword of the International Monetary Fund and the CIA, the impact of an indigenous symbol of power is immense. However, despite his cult-hero status, Mugabe has been compelled to defend his political turf, and a series of questionable public policy initiatives have imperiled Mugabe’s legacy as a liberator and pushed him towards the role of dictator.

In his lifetime, Mugabe has become the face of the successful struggle that returned black rule to Zimbabwe. Rhodesia, once a monument to C.J. Rhodes, the nation’s eponym and its original brutish British imperialist, became Zimbabwe, a monument to African sovereignty. (The name comes from the site of a great historical African trading city located within the country.) Since independence, Mugabe has attempted to appear as if he is protecting the interests of Zimbabweans against foreign influences, most obviously with two major waves of land reform, one in the early 1980s and again around 2000.

Mugabe has made himself something of a regional untouchable. South Africa refuses to intervene despite the political violence of the past five years. South Africa’s ruling party recognizes that their own country faces many of the same economic black-sovereignty issues and cannot oppose such a powerful grass-roots symbol. Before elections last week, Mugabe’s political party, Zanu-PF, played up this theme, calling a vote for Zanu-PF, a vote for Zimbabwean sovereignty, and a vote against “British imperial pigs.” Never mind that the economy is half of what it was five years ago, or that my Zimbabwean host was forced to store his laptop and digital camera at the border—at his own expense—only to return to find it ‘stored’ haphazardly in some tires.

However, Mugabe couldn’t escape one other colonial influence: liberal democracy. In 2000, with opposition pressure mounting, Mugabe and his party looked the other way when, after years of bickering with white farmers about the proper pace of land reform Zanu-PF did not object when citizens forcibly occupied previously white-owned land. This is what politicians do—whore themselves out for votes. I probably don’t even need to tell you that this politically valuable public policy was not properly administered and the bottom fell out of the economy.

This is only part of the story, of course. Blaming liberal democracy for Zimbabwe’s fall echoes much of the Western press in what I’ll call the The Gods Must Be Crazy-ization of Africa. In the movie, an African encounters technology for the first time, in the form of a Coke bottle.

First, this kind of thing happens all the time in the U.S. Has anyone done a study on the economic impact of the favors George W. Bush doled out to Ohio and other swing states right before the 2004 presidential election? No one seemed to notice that John Kerry flipped his party’s position on a gay-marriage amendment to curry favor with those same voters. To use a less politically charged example, in February, the City of Chicago announced the launch of $53 million Homeland Security Grid. I highly doubt that this fiber-optic grid will actually be able to stop a terrorist attack. But local politicians need to show that they are responding to Chicago’s security needs, and so they spend a bunch of cash on a useless system. In short, the phenomenon of attracting or maintaining voter support at the expense of long-term welfare is hardly indigenous to Africa. I would argue that liberal democracy inherently dilutes and adulterates public policy.

Africa cannot afford weak public policy. The economies are far less diversified, and the population is not there to provide the economies of scale on which the free market thrives. Given these differences between Africa and the West, Africa needs strong leaders and solutions, not politics, because the stakes are much higher in Harare than they are in Cleveland. You could ask the women selling fresh tomatoes along the A3 between Mutare and Harare in pitch black and a driving rainstorm. You could have asked me when I had 18 bills in my pocket adding up to $0.35 in U.S. currency. You could ask the young computer technicians with college degrees but no jobs, consigned to burning black-market CDs. Any of these people could tell you what happens when a paragon is exposed to electoral politics.

The true story of Robert Mugabe will be written in the next three years before he stands for re-election. Zanu-PF’s two-thirds majority won in last week’s parliamentary elections gives Mugabe free political range to do whatever he pleases. It is then, free of democracy’s shackles, that he will have his chance to rebuild the Zimbabwean economy and restore his reputation.

To many scholars and Americans, the post-Cold War era signifies nothing less than the triumph of the twin ideologies of capitalism and democracy. The last 12 months have been something of a banner year for democracy, with incipient forms sprouting in Beirut, Baghdad, and even the West Bank. However, the example of Zimbabwe ought to warn us against trodding too hard in civilizations on the other side of the world.